Worst catastrophe leaves its trail on Otsuchi coastline

More than half of towns population feared to be buried under rubble

Like most of Japan’s northeast, Otsuchi was rattled by Friday’s massive earthquake and then flattened by the ensuing tsunami. Officials fear more than half the town’s population of about 19,000 is buried under the rubble.

“Otsuchi reminds me of Osaka and Tokyo after World War II,” Tadateru Konoe, president of Japan’s Red Cross, told Reuters, as rescue workers swarmed over rubble, twisted metal and debris, some of it ablaze.

“Everything is destroyed and flattened. This is a complete disaster. In my long career in the Red Cross, this is the worst I have ever seen,” he said.  Fires burned in the hills overlooking Otsuchi, complicating rescue efforts. Near-freezing temperatures, and the extent of the devastation, made chances for surviving this disaster slim.

“It really doesn’t get any worse than this—I’ve never seen anything so bad,” said Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation. “I don’t think you will find anywhere worse on the coastline.

“There are just kilometres of wasteland, twisted metal and people picking though it all for bodies.”  All along the ravaged northeastern Pacific coast, there were similar scenes of destruction. The wall of water transported homes inland, swept ships into fields, upended cars and, in one instance, lifted a sailing boat onto the roof of a house.

Town wiped out

As many as 10,000 people are thought to have been killed. Kyodo news agency said 2,000 bodies had been found on the shores of Miyagi prefecture, which suffered the brunt of the damage.

In Minami Sanriku, Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters photographer Adrees Latif said the whole town had been wiped out by the waves. More than 10,000 people were unaccounted for, but some families who lived in the surrounding hillside survived and could be seen scrambling across the rubble to get to what once was the centre of town.

“I have seen similar disasters — I covered the (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami from Thailand — but I have never seen anything like this in my life,” Latif said. “I stopped shooting for a while to look out on to the town, and I just stood there in disbelief.” The enormity of the disaster has shaken Japan to the core. Survivors walked through the rubble, many in tears after losing loved ones, others unsure of the fate of family and friends. They lined up in front of notice boards at emergency centres looking for news.

The Red Cross’s Fuller said the priority must be on providing relief for the living.  “It’s tragic to say because thousands have died, but the focus has to be on the survivors,” he said. “This requires a massive, massive mobilisation of resources because the affected area stretches hundreds of kilometres.”

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